For a very long time, LGBTQ activism has been centred on the idea that gay people were born this way; that who we are is as a result of God or biology and not a product of choice. I mean, who would choose to be gay right? Who would choose to live a life condemned with bigotry, homophobia and violence? The ‘born this way’ narrative is one that LGBTQ allies and well-meaning folks also use in trying to defend gay people against homophobia and show solidarity. You often hear them say things like “they can’t help it, they were born that way” or “do you really think anyone would choose this lifestyle with all the hardship that comes with it?” This idea was even turned into a song in the form of ‘Born This Way’ by Lady Gaga and became a gay anthem and rightly so in many ways, for many of us, myself included.
For LGBTQ activists and gay people, in general, it was an argument that had to be made in order to fight for our lives, our humanity and dignity i.e. if someone has no say in their sexuality in the way that they have no say in the colour of their skin then sexuality should be accorded the same respect that race is. It was an argument that was made to counter the narrative of ‘it’s a lifestyle choice and if you can choose to do it you can choose to reject it or change it’ pushed by religious bigots in order to carry out the violence that is conversion therapy. For LGBT+ allies it is a simplistic argument made from most times a well-meaning place in order to counter complex and bigoted ideas.
However, despite the fact that this narrative comes from a good place and has helped us progress our understanding of sexuality, it could actually be stopping us from progressing further. The idea that people are born gay doesn’t match the science and the real-life experiences on the ground. The truth of the matter is biology and culture interact to shape our sexuality and we cannot definitively say whether or not we are born this way. Sari Van Anders, a researcher in feminist and queer science argues that “there’s sort of this idea that … if someone’s gay they’re gay in the exact same way. Everything is the same, so it would be the same biological origin, which denies the reality that people experience sexualities and live their sexualities very diversely.”
People come around their sexualities differently; people are gay in various ways because we understand sexuality to be fluid. While some people might not view whom they choose to love as a choice, rightly so because deep down they feel attracted to people of the same sex, there are people who engage in homosexual behaviour who might not identify or consider themselves gay and I wouldn’t consider them gay either.
For example, men in the Arab world or in conservative Muslim regions who have been reported to sometimes have sex with each other because of how removed their women are from public spaces or teenagers in boarding houses hitting puberty that sleep with their roommates or friends. There are also instances of men and women who sleep with people of the same sex as an easy way to make money/get favours or men and women in prison who sleep with each other because there just aren’t people of the opposite sex around. Many times, these people are not attracted to people of the same sex, therefore are by definition not gay, it’s a choice they are making influenced by social or cultural reasons. Are these people now less deserving of humanity and equality because theirs is a choice? I think the obvious answer is no. This narrative only suits people whose sexuality and gender are rigid and it excludes people especially bisexual, transgender and queer people whose sexuality and gender is indeed more fluid.
To argue that people are born gay is to partake in respectability politics. It is to concede the argument to homophobes by unnecessarily meeting them in the middle. To steal the words of Twitter user, @MajorPhilebrity “the born this way argument is low-hanging fruit and it does nothing in asserting our humanity. By arguing it, it concedes that if it were a choice, it’d be a perverse one.”
Whether or not people choose to be gay or not is not important, what is important is that they are human and therefore are deserving of dignity, equality and respect.
Anthony Jones (a pseudonym) is a graduate of Coventry University where he holds a Masters degree in International Business. He is very passionate about issues around social justice and equity.